Take Heart — Americans’ Cardiac Health Is Improving

CREDIT: AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

In this Nov. 25, 2013 photograph, Alberta Epps of Jackson, Miss., right, undergoes a sonogram of the brachial artery as a participant in the Jackson Heart Study, as Audrey Samuels, a registered diagnostic sonographer, monitors the process at their Jackson, Miss., facility.

Lifestyle changes, better treatment, and improved prevention efforts have caused a drastic decrease in hospitalization from heart disease and stroke, according to a study published in the online journal Circulation this week.

Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn. collected the medical data of nearly 34 million Medicaid-covered patients between 1999 and 2011 and found that hospital visits for heart attacks dropped by nearly 38 percent within that time frame. Rates of angina pectoris — chest pain or discomfort that signals a heart attack — also fell by 85 percent, according to the study. Researchers said that improved quality of care caused a drop in the risk of death by heart attack by 20 percent.

“The findings are jaw-dropping,” lead researcher Dr. Harlan Krumholz, a professor of cardiology at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn, told WebMD. “They really show that we have begun to reverse this epidemic of heart disease and stroke. No one thought this kind of progress was possible in this short period of time. There is a path to reverse epidemics borne of lifestyle rather than from infectious causes.”

Nearly 600,000 people — one in four Americans — succumb to heart disease each year, making it the leading cause of death in the United States, according to data compiled by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A host of conditions, including coronary artery disease and heart attack, fall under the umbrella of heart disease. Coronary artery disease — the most common of those ailments — often causes heart attack, angina pectoris, heart failure, and arrhythmias, which is an irregularity in heart beats.

If not treated effectively, heart disease can be costly to the American health care system. In 2011, Medicare and Medicaid costs for heart disease patients readmitted into hospitals within 30 days of a discharge totaled $273 million and $1.75 billion respectively. The next year, Medicare officials levied fines that totaled $227 million against hospitals that reported the deterioration of patients’ health after discharge from facilities.

In 2013, Medicare officials also extended coverage for cardiac rehabilitation to 50 percent of patients suffering from chronic health failure. Now, more than two million patients can enjoy up to 36 weekly sessions during which they exercise, manage stress, and eat healthily under the supervision of a physician. Patients also have the option of taking two or three sessions per week under the plan extension. Those eligible for enrollment in the rehabilitation program would have had to suffer a heart attack within the last 12 months and underwent a host of medical procedures that include coronary artery bypass surgery, heart valve repair or replacement, or a heart or lung transplant.

Even as health officials tout the recent findings, many say that efforts to push Americans to make healthier lifestyle choices must continue. As data from the CDC shows, there’s work still to be done. For example, the prevalence of tobacco smoking among adult males remains high in parts of the Midwest and South, even though the national rate has declined by two percentage points within the last decade. People living in low-income communities — areas often designated as “food deserts” — also have a higher risk of suffering from heart-related health problems due to their consumption of food high in fat and sodium.